Nihilism is best described as an ideology in which people simply don’t believe in any type of purpose in life. It’s like pessimism or cynicism, but it’s founded on the theory that there’s no real meaning attached to life as we know it.
Nihilists are of the mindset that we are designed to respond to our environment rather than believe that we have some intrinsic value or that we’re meant to pursue a higher purpose.
It’s a philosophy that’s hard to understand if you believe in a greater purpose, and many see it as a negative way of thinking.
If we don’t have meaning and direction, then what is the point of setting goals, having values, or building connections?
While nihilists may adopt an extreme stance on life, it’s not all doom and gloom. Many of them learn to step out of their comfort zones to take risks, and they aren’t afraid to go against “the norm,” assuming that one exists, of course.
But how can you be sure if someone displays these behaviors they have a nihilistic outlook on life?
The best way to answer this question is to take a closer look at some of the most common nihilistic characteristics and ways of thinking that I break down in the following guide.
1) They’re risk-takers.
You only need to search the term “nihilism” online to find that it’s associated with pessimism.
On the surface, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that a meaningless existence seems pessimistic and negative, but there are always two sides to every story.
We can look at it this way.
Living a life without being driven by any type of purpose makes it easier to pursue opportunities and take bigger risks.
Because there’s no real connection to other people or the world, there’s less fear, and if life has no meaning, what difference does it make if you fail or succeed?
Nihilists don’t need to rely on or impress anybody, and if they don’t succeed at something they do, it’s no big deal. They simply move on to the next venture.
Emotions such as embarrassment don’t really feature in their pursuit of opportunities and willingness to move forward, so they rarely become stuck, which is actually a good thing.
This fearlessness makes it easier for them to take more risks compared to someone who places great value on their goals, successes, and failures.
2) They’re detached from societal norms.
One aspect of life that is shared by all nihilists is that they do not believe in or live according to the norms of society.
Rather than conform to a traditional standard, they would rather deconstruct or break these norms apart.
That’s not to say that individuals who consider themselves nihilists are destructive in their way of thinking.
They just reject the value systems that are implemented by the government, religious leaders, and society as a whole because nothing is truly known, which means that it can’t be communicated.
It’s about rebelling against society because existence is baseless, along with the value that is placed on objects and people.
3) They come across as selfish.
The absence of purpose or belief in morality leaves nihilists to act in their own interests, which non-nihilists view as selfish.
I see it this way.
When you don’t attach any type of meaning to the world that you live in or to life itself, you only know how to act based on your inner motivations. These cannot be judged against moral principles or standards because nihilists don’t think that they exist.
Without values to guide one’s beliefs and decisions, some individuals may put little time and effort into connecting with people they meet.
What’s the point, after all?
Non-nihilists simply cannot fathom why one person always puts themselves first, and they consider this selfish behavior.
Of course, in the eyes of a nihilist, they’re just doing what they have to. They survive and thrive. If there’s no meaning in life, there’s nothing to judge one’s behavior against.
4) They’re content with their lives.
There’s a misconception that when you’re a nihilist, you’re always negative, and you tend to bring everyone’s mood down around you.
In reality, nihilism doesn’t necessarily dictate one’s mood or overall life satisfaction.
They might not attach meaning to every aspect of their lives, but they want to fall in love, have a happy marriage, raise a family, and establish their careers. They’re just not restricted by what is expected of them.
There’s no pressure to become someone they aren’t or to conform. So if there’s something they want to do or achieve, they’ll do it on their own terms and at their own pace.
I would summarize it this way…
They don’t see the glass as half full or as half empty. On the one hand, you should be happy with what you have, but you should also focus on what is missing.
Once they free themselves from where they should be or who they should be with, they can do what they feel is necessary to be happy.
Even a cynic, who is compared to a nihilist and has no faith in humanity, can experience contentment.
5) They’re naturally curious.
You know that someone’s a nihilist when they start asking questions about existentialism and whether there really is any meaning in life.
In the absence of purpose and values, nihilists have many thoughts about how to best live their lives if there is no ethical basis for it.
Despite their philosophy that there isn’t meaning and that nothing is a given, they are curious about human constructs.
Such individuals are interested in how we know the things we know, particularly when they are of the perception that it’s all an illusion.
6) They believe in values of their choosing.
While the overarching theme of this belief system is that life is actually meaningless and nothing exists in terms of driving and motivating us, some nihilists believe in a single value that they feel is important.
For example, some of them choose to place all of their time and energy into love and relationships.
While this might seem rare in the realm of nihilism, their view that life is pointless doesn’t mean that they can’t love someone else or enjoy all of the things that come with a romantic and intimate relationship.
Many nihilists still pursue things like trust in relationships and rewarding careers. What they don’t do is place the values and principles that society or the world tells us to live by in their pursuits.
In doing so, they let go of the preconceived notion that you have to follow specific rules or meet certain expectations in life to experience happiness.
7) They think that hope is futile.
If you have the mindset that existence is about living and dying and that there’s no motivation to work on your values or dream of a brighter tomorrow, you let go of hope.
Nihilists, who see the world as a place of survival, let go of feeling hopeful about things. If you don’t have any hope, you can’t be disappointed, and once you release yourself from the grip of despair, you can finally be free.
This “freedom” is meant to protect you from experiencing suffering.
This is a bit of a slippery slope because feeling hopeless can spiral into depression and leave one feeling lost.
Although most nihilists would contend with this and are of the stance that a nihilist philosophy is separate from a psychological state of depression, therapists warn that meaninglessness increases the risk of anxiety in certain areas of your life.
They aren’t necessarily pessimistic, either. They can find their own sense of direction depending on their pursuits, and they aren’t of the mindset that things could work out negatively, which would create disappointment.
Things are as they should be, whether the outcome is positive or negative.
There’s another reason that nihilists don’t always hold onto hope. Some have been affected by significant suffering in their lives, which has led to the idea that we are here on this earth to exist.
Rather than focus on despair, they hide from it.
8) They only accept information that aligns with their viewpoints.
There’s something called confirmation bias that explains why individuals who relate to nihilism only see and accept information through their viewpoints or perspectives.
In conversation, you may notice that such individuals are only receptive to information that aligns with their way of thinking.
Rather than put any effort into considering the opinions and thoughts of others, they have a tendency to only support information that fits with their beliefs and mindset.
This can become frustrating when trying to resolve a problem or move forward in a relationship.
Ultimately, nihilism shouldn’t be viewed as pessimistic or cynical because it’s neither of these.
It’s normal to question whether there’s a purpose in life, and for nihilists, these questions are about creating their own sense of the world and existence that isn’t influenced by society’s standards and moral principles.
Some use this new-found mental freedom to focus on what makes them happy, while others reject change or become hopeless because they don’t see any way out.
On a positive note, nihilism can also serve to motivate us to take more risks and not be held back by what others believe we should or shouldn’t be.